Sister Silence


  T.S. Eliot wrote: “Is there enough silence for the word to be heard? It’s a great question to ask: 'Can I be quiet enough to hear the word I need to hear?’ 

 The Buddhist monk, Pup Jeong, was once invited to speak at a Catholic church in South Korea. He began to talk about the relation of words to silence. He was making the point that true words arise from silence.

 'In the beginning,’ said the monk, 'there was silence.’  

 To which, offense was immediately taken by someone who began shouting: ‘No! No! No! In the beginning was the Word!’ 

 Setting up therefore a possible conflict or collision between the two men. 

 Except that, no opponent could be found, for the monk did not shout back. He became quiet instead. 

 I heard this story from two south Koreans, one of whom gently explained:  ‘You can, if you’d like, separate silence and word - there’s a place for that, but our understanding is that there is no separation between word and silence, for word is silence and silence is word. There is no difference.'

 He spoke from his heart, clearly and gently. In response I felt calmed. For I was finding that the man's very presence was an eloquent, powerful, word. He was word. He embodied the point he was making. 

 Which is, by the way, how I felt when I first met him. He had come towards me so quietly then that I hadn't noticed him standing nearby. 

 Then, too, I had become quiet. I could not do otherwise in relation to his welcoming and unobtrusive presence. He was an incarnate word by his way and manner.

 Here is someone who I’m sure would never be in anyone’s face as an intrusive, space clogging zealot. He’s not someone who would ever press his point, anxious to change you.

 And therefore there is no possibilty of an argument with such a quiet, gracious, space-creating man.

 You can, however, as I was to discover, participate with him in a gentle and yet intense, exploration of essential matters. But, again, no shouting match is even possible. 

 Now, within the Christian tradition itself there is an understanding of this kind of relationship between silence and word - that the true word issues forth from silence. At Christmas, for instance, we hear the words from the Bible and from the Christian liturgy: “When peaceful silence lay over all, and night had run the half of her swift course, down from the heavens, from the royal throne, leapt your all-powerful Word.” 

 It is apparent that an immense silence prepared the way for the Word to be expressed.

 Otherwise, without that prior, preparatory silence, what kind of word would have leapt forth? Words of comfort and joy? Probably not. After all, how do any words sound that are disconnected from silence? What are words like when there is no silence built into them?

 The answer is that words, unshaped by silence, are likely to be harsh and jarring. You could well be walloped by such words - sent reeling from the barren words - needing time to recover from the onslaught.

 Words not created by silence may feel like a shout and a blast from heaven - as like the iron-fisted approach of any religious or secular fanatic who is no friend of silence.

 And so, therefore, does the Divine word have to resemble the angry tone of the dreadfully earnest preacher who shouts: "At our church we preach the Word!?” 

 I have always wondered exactly what preachers like this are at pains to stress? I have honestly never understood the threatening pose they take. 

 Are these pulpit thumpers hoping that I will become as angry as they appear to be? Are they hoping that I will join with them angrily to shout from the rooftops the word of the Lord?

 I have never understood these ones who thunder forth that they are the ones who are uniquely preaching the Word.

 But I know how I feel when I hear one of them.

 I feel shut-down, oppressed. For I know that where their flocks gather there is no room or space for inquiry, or for real conversation. And there certainly will never be silence.

 Nor will there be any room and space for slow growth. Rather, a speedy conformity will be the order of the day.

 I would like therefore to ask: What is meant by the Word anyway? Might there be other definitions than those given by men who are at war with silence?

 What about a possible understanding of the Word as a sonorous word, a singing word? For myself, I feel thrilled to contemplate that the creation was sung into being.

 In the beginning, according to this understanding, there was quiet and then a melody flashed forth, like the songs of the birds, emerging from silence, as the dawn breaks.

 It is just so, according to the Gayatri mantra, where it is said that the Word "sings forth and this whole universe comes to be.” 

 Such an understanding, says Raimon Panikkar, "is at the heart of Indic, Chinese, Jewish, Christian, Germanic, African and other traditions.” The understanding is that the ultimate nature of reality is a sonorous, sensible and rhythmic Word.

 The creation is thought to be a rhythmic flowing forth, but not random or disorderly. Rather, God’s expression of himself was and is, “an ordered flowing, and has a rhythmic structure.” 

 Which is to say that there was a relation, a rhythm, between silence and word from the very beginning.

 Where, we might ask, are those human beings whose way of life is a kind of a rhythmic re-expression of creation, as they listen to the silence before speaking and who continue to listen after opening their mouths?

 Perhaps it may be time to re-introduce the old practice of speaking only when one is “in the presence of God .” Otherwise, well, to be quiet.

 Or it may be time to re-introduce the practice of uttering a prayer before a meal. So that, prior to eating and talking, we affirm that essential silent dimension that can alter the quality of sharing a meal together.

 Or it may be time to re-introduce the practice of lighting a lamp before any speech.

 Or it may be time to re-introduce the practice of "greeting each other with a Divine name at the beginning of an encounter." (Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being, p. 34)

 These practices, largely discarded, point to what Panikkar calls an intuition that a preliminary sacred, meditative silence, needs to be entered before words are spoken.

 But as Panikkar states: "People are rarely conscious of this presence and do not experience this power, freedom, and dignity because they have allowed language to become so corrupt that it is only a means of exchanging information, in order to do, or to know, this or that.”  

 "Our language," he says, "no longer witnesses or creates beause we have exiled words from the realm of silence.  

 By ignoring the dimension of silence we have become, says Panikkar, so narrow and rigid that “we no longer hear the sound of the living Word."

 When, however, upon becoming quiet enough to listen, we are able to experience the symphonic harmony of silence and word, at the heart of reality.

 And as the practice of silence deepens, there will be an increasing intimacy with the immensity of this wondrous rhythm of silence and word.

 More and more familiar with this meditative silence, I may become over time like the "admirably silent sea, ready for the wonder of the word." (George Steiner)

 As I befriend the Silence, she becomes my best friend - Sister Silence.


Logos Part 7 Klaus Wiese